"Deck Chairs on the U.S.S. Dubya" was the headline run by the influential National Journal, a reference to the president's middle initial and the cliche about re-arranging the deck chairs on the Titanic, the ill-fated ocean-liner sunk by a North Atlantic iceberg in 1912. The Washington Post's front page, meanwhile, hinted at desperation: "White House Shifts Into Survival Mode."
Even worse was the cover of the latest Rolling Stone magazine, the hip monthly read by rock-music lovers, Republicans and Democrats alike. Depicting a bemused Bush in a dunce cap perched on a stool in a schoolroom corner, it featured the question that shows signs of becoming a favourite Washington parlor game: "The Worst President in History?"
"George W. Bush is in serious contention for the title of worst ever," wrote the author, Sean Wilentz, a prominent Princeton University historian, noting that 81 percent of 415 historians surveyed by the History News Network considered the Bush presidency a "failure" already in early 2004.
That was at a time when Bush's approval ratings were still hovering around 50 percent; and a solid majority of Americans said they believed he made the right decision in invading Iraq, the very issue that most analysts now say is most responsible for his plunging popularity.
And while news that Iraq's Interim Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari, whom Washington had been trying to get rid of for most of this year, had finally agreed to step aside probably offered the White House a glimmer of hope that a government in Baghdad might finally be put together, many experts believe his replacement -- likely to be drawn from his Da'wa Party -- will not be much different.
Indeed, aside from al-Jaafari's withdrawal, the news out of Iraq this week seemed only to get worse: the mysterious two-day battle in the Adhamiya district of Baghdad between Sunni self-defense forces and Shiite-dominated police appeared to confirm that the country was sliding ever closer to civil war.
And hopes that March's relatively low U.S. casualty figures indicated a welcome trend -- even as Iraqi casualties of the sectarian conflict continued to mount in the aftermath of the Februarys bombing of the Golden Mosque in Samarra -- were dashed by the death toll so far this month of more than 50.
Moreover, a new report this week from the Congressional Research Service found that, despite a modest withdrawal of troops in both Iraq and Afghanistan over the past year, Washington is currently spending nearly 10 billion dollars a month (about 300 million dollars a day) to sustain military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan; almost twice the cost of two years ago.
Unlike last fall, when Bush's approval ratings enjoyed a brief revival after a concerted campaign of public appearances to explain his "strategy for victory" was capped by a big turnout in Iraq's parliamentary elections, confidence in the president has fallen steadily over the past several months.
Thursday's Fox News poll suggested that the plunge has become particularly precipitous in recent weeks. In mid-March, the same pollsters found Bush's support at 39 percent, down from 47 percent one year ago.
Much of the recent erosion has come from his fellow Republicans, according to the poll, which found that, for the first time in his presidency, less than 70 percent of self-identified Republicans said they approve of his performance. Earlier this month, a Washington Post/ABC poll found that Bush still had the support of 81 percent of Republicans.
The latter poll, which also measured the intensity of respondents' approval or disapproval of Bush, was particularly alarming to party activists who have depended on strong turnout by Republican voters and weak turnout by Democrats to first gain and then maintain their control of both houses of Congress, particularly in midterm elections.
The poll found that only 20 percent of respondents said they "strongly approve" of Bush's performance, compared to 47 percent who said they "strongly disapprove." Six months before the last midterm elections -- in April 2002 -- 47 percent of respondents said they "strongly approved" of Bush, and only 10 percent said they "strongly disapproved."
"Angry voters turn out and vote their anger," Glen Bolger, a Republican pollster, told the Washington Post this week. "Democrats will have an easier time of getting out their vote because of their intense disapproval of the president."
While all but about ten percent of the 435 seats in the House of Representatives and a bit more of the 33 seats in the Senate that are up for election in November are considered "safe" for their Republican or Democratic incumbents, those that are competitive are likely to be determined by the degree of voter turnout.
Many analysts now see the election as shaping up as a reverse re-run of the 1994 midterm elections, when Republicans won control of both houses of Congress for the first time since 1954, in part due to the unpopularity of then-President Bill Clinton, although Clinton's approval ratings were never nearly as low as Bush's.
These dynamics create a serious dilemma for many Republican congressional candidates who must decide whether and how much to distance themselves from the president.
A much-watched anonymous survey by The National Journal found last week that 60 percent of 75 Republican "insiders" considered Bush a "liability" to the party's prospects for the midterm elections. Nearly 20 percent said they considered him a "major liability." (Eight-seven percent of their Democratic counterparts said he was a "major liability.")
As Bush's ratings have fallen over the past several months, political professionals in both parties agree that the chances that the Democrats could gain control of one or both houses have improved substantially.
According to another anonymous survey released Friday by The National Journal of 133 political insiders divided roughly equally between both parties, the chances of a Democratic takeover of the House, in particular, have increased from about 42 percent in February to about 52 percent today. In the Senate, the chances have increased from about 35 percent to just over 40 percent.
A Democratic majority in either house would not only pose a significant, and probably fatal, threat to Bush's legislative agenda and his assertions of war-time presidential power.
It is also likely to result in the initiation of formal investigations into any number of scandals -- from the manipulation of intelligence and planning in the run-up to the Iraq war, to the authorization of warrantless wiretaps by the National Security Agency (NSA) -- that the administration has so far avoided.
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April 20, 2006 (http://www.albionmonitor.com)
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